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A Look At The Power Wielded By Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is enormously powerful. The Republican from Kentucky has called himself the Grim Reaper, vowing to block any Democratic priorities coming out of the House. Last week, he blocked election security bills meant to protect the 2020 elections from Russian interference. For NPR's Embedded podcast, host Kelly McEvers and her team spent months reporting on Mitch McConnell - who he is and what drives him.

Hi, Kelly.


SHAPIRO: When I saw you here at NPR headquarters the other day, I said I am amazed that you accomplished something I did not think possible, which is that you made Mitch McConnell interesting in this season of Embedded. And that's not an insult. He takes pride in being boring.

MCEVERS: That's right.

SHAPIRO: So what made you think that this guy was worth a deep dive, spending months reporting on him?

MCEVERS: I think Mitch McConnell is one of those politicians who people think they know, but maybe they don't know. You know, in some ways, he's seen as this partisan warrior right now, a leader of the Republican Party at a time when the party's ascendant.

But what we wanted to do is go back and look at his early political life and see how he got to where he is now. And what we found is that while, you know, a lot of people say that Mitch McConnell used to be a moderate, it's actually a lot more complicated than that, right? He comes from Kentucky, which once was a blue state.


MCEVERS: And so what some people thought were moderate views back then might have actually just been practical ways to win.

SHAPIRO: And that seems consistent throughout his career.

MCEVERS: Yes, winning is very important to Mitch McConnell. His critics would say that this means, you know, he's less concerned about specific policies or signature pieces of legislation, but rather tactics that will keep him in power. And we'll be sharing all this reporting in the coming days.

SHAPIRO: So you dive deep into his early career and also more recent decisions he's made. And one of the most notable of those was his refusal to hold hearings on Merrick Garland, who was President Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court in 2016 after Justice Antonin Scalia died.

Many people say this decision helped get Donald Trump elected. When you sat down with McConnell, what did he tell you about this?

MCEVERS: You know, there are a lot of people who still refer to Mitch McConnell as this institutionalist - right? - the man who knows every bit of history about the Senate, all the arcane rules. You know, Mitch McConnell is the rare senator who has never actually wanted to be president.


MCEVERS: And so when I asked him whether it gave him pause to make this unprecedented decision in the case of Merrick Garland, here's what he said.


MITCH MCCONNELL: You can't ignore the history here. One of my complaints about a lot of the articles about this, they refuse to carry what happened in the past. And you have to put that in context, or you simply buy the Democratic argument that there was something completely and totally unexpected and unusual about this. It wasn't unexpected or unusual. And I can tell you without fear of contradiction if the shoe was on the other foot, they'd have done the same thing, absolutely certain.

MCEVERS: It's just that you are still perceived as an obstructionist. Like, that is who people think you are - some people.

MCCONNELL: Well, that's their argument. And they're entitled to their argument. I'm entitled to mine.

MCEVERS: And what he's talking about here when he's saying you have to look back at the history, he's talking about this time when Democrats once suggested that they might block a nominee to the Supreme Court in a presidential year. But of course, they never did that.

SHAPIRO: And you really parsed the judicial arms race in one of the episodes. McConnell insists Democrats did it first.

MCEVERS: Right. It's something he said a lot in our interviews. Here's just a few times where he said that.


MCCONNELL: Chuck Schumer started us down this path back with the serial filibusters of circuit judge...

Well, the same argument could have been made to Harry Reid in 2013 when they did...

So my critics conveniently leave out Biden, Schumer, Reid and history. Other than that, they're totally accurate.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Other than that. All right, so fact-check this for us, Kelly. Did the Democrats start it?

MCEVERS: He does have a point. Democrats were the first to throw up major roadblocks to judicial nominees to the federal bench purely based on their ideology - right? - of course, Robert Bork being the most well-known in 1987. But then many would say that Republicans like Mitch McConnell took that much further by breaking down the rules and norms that used to govern this process, so much so that Republicans are speeding nominees onto the courts. And now Democrats are talking about changing the very makeup of the Supreme Court if they were to get back in power.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the relationship between McConnell and Trump, they're very different people who often march in lockstep. They both supported pushing for border wall money in a spending bill at the beginning of the year. Neither one of them sees the need for legislation on election security. How did McConnell characterize his relationship with Trump when you talked to him?

MCEVERS: You know, one of the things that people told us about Mitch McConnell is that right, these two might not be alike at all. But Mitch McConnell is up for reelection in 2020 in Kentucky. And that tells you everything you need to know about his relationship with Donald Trump. So I asked him about that.


MCEVERS: I have to talk about the president a little bit because everybody likes to ask you him about him. You know, his rating in Kentucky is high. And yours isn't as high. That means probably that it makes sense to be with him on stuff.

MCCONNELL: Well, let me explain to you what happens to a leader on approval. I had terrific approval until I got to be the leader of my party in the Senate. And what happens is you get beat up a lot. I think the best way to judge Mitch McConnell is how do the elections come out. I'm 9-0.

MCEVERS: Nine and 0, that's something that we heard him say a lot in our interviews. When he's talking about that, he's talking about two wins for local office back in the '70s and '80s, six wins for the United States Senate, and then a difficult primary win for Senate. But...

SHAPIRO: Back to that theme of winning.

MCEVERS: Right, and it's one of the things I remember most from our interview.


MCCONNELL: If you're constantly in pursuit of popularity, you can tie yourself in a knot. I think it's impossible to satisfy everybody. I try to deliver for my state and make decisions on what I think is in the best interest of the country. And anybody can run against me who chooses to. So far, I don't want to be - sound too cocky here, but so far, there've been nine losers.

SHAPIRO: OK, so that brings us to 2020, where...


SHAPIRO: ...McConnell does have a Democratic challenger, a retired fighter pilot named Amy McGrath. Do people in Kentucky see her as a real threat to him?

MCEVERS: I mean, it's still a year away, so I think anything can happen. But I will say despite his unpopularity in his home state, McConnell does know how to raise a lot of money and does know how to win. And while a lot of people outside of Kentucky might want to see him lose, and Amy McGrath is raising a decent amount of money from around the country, she also made some early public missteps that have been widely covered in Kentucky. In the end, all that matters is how people inside Kentucky vote.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. What was the most memorable moment from your interviews with McConnell?

MCEVERS: So it came at the end of our first interview. We had said our goodbyes. And then his communications director called me back. You know, Kelly, the leader wants to show you something. So...

SHAPIRO: The leader wants to show you something.

MCEVERS: The leader. They call him the leader. So I go into his office. And he's standing in front of this black and white photograph of him and Antonin Scalia when the two actually worked together in the Justice Department back in the '70s.

McConnell had given the photo to Scalia. And then later after Scalia died and McConnell held open his Supreme Court seat, one of Scalia's sons gave it back to McConnell. And he wrote this.


MCCONNELL: To Leader McConnell and his legendary foresight, with appreciation from the Scalia family - May 2018.

MCEVERS: And standing there showing me this photograph, he was very clearly moved, right? At one point, I looked at him and I saw that he had tears in his eyes. And I remember thinking, you know, is he moved because of his connection to his old friend, or is it something bigger, right? Is it about the enormity of this decision he made to hold open his seat on the Supreme Court?

But it was clear that the moment was over. I was, you know, it was time for me to go. And so I later sent McConnell an email. And I asked him why he was so moved at this moment. And he wrote, I didn't have tears in my eyes.

SHAPIRO: That's Kelly McEvers, host of the NPR podcast Embedded. And we're going to be hearing more of her team's reporting on Mitch McConnell later this week.

Thanks, Kelly.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.


Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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